It may go down as the most underrated recruiting haul in recent college basketball history.
Butler's 2008 class didn't include a single player ranked among the nation's top 150 prospects, yet three of its six members cracked the starting lineup as freshmen. One year later, Gordon Hayward, Shelvin Mack and Ronald Nored are three of the most important players at the Final Four.
"We just put in a lot of hard work," said Hayward, who was named the Most Outstanding Player in the West Regional. "I don't know if [the skeptics] didn't respect us or didn't think as highly of us, but we believed in ourselves. That was the most important thing."
They have plenty of believers now. Butler (31-4) stands one win away from a shot at a national title in large part because of its three sophomore standouts. The other three teams in the Final Four – Duke, Michigan State and West Virginia – have high school All-Americans dotting their rosters (Duke has far more than anyone else at the Final Four), but Butler's sophomore trio shouldn't be overlooked.
Hayward is a matchup nightmare. Mack is the fearless outside shooter. Nored is the defensive stopper. The class also includes sophomore reserve forward Garrett Butcher, redshirt freshman reserve forward Emerson Kampen and redshirt freshman backup guard Chase Stigall.
"It's pretty amazing for three guys who were under the radar like that to be starting on a Final Four team," said Jerry Meyer, a national recruiting analyst for Rivals.com.
So why weren't they more highly regarded as recruits?
Hayward, the best prospect of the bunch, developed into a potential NBA small forward prospect only after growing 8 inches in high school in suburban Indianapolis. Hayward was 5 feet 10 when he entered ninth grade. And none of Butler's sophomores played in the most high-profile events on the AAU circuit.
"They didn't get exposure," Meyer said. "That's why Butler's really good. That's sort of the formula for these mid-major-type programs. They have to sort of outwork the system and find those guys who aren't highly visible within the system. … Butler identified those guys and did a great job of developing them. That's your formula."
The three top recruits from Butler's 2008 class had plenty in common. All of them were well-liked and well-respected on their high school campuses. And they all starred on winning teams.
Hayward closed his high school career by making a game-winning shot at the buzzer for Brownsburg High in the Indiana Class 4A state championship game. Nored reached the state championship game his senior year at Homewood (Ala.) High. Mack played for Lexington (Ky.) Bryan Station, which won 112 games in his high school career and earned a No. 1 state ranking his senior season.
"First and foremost, all of them are winners," Butler assistant Matthew Graves said. "They came from winning programs, and they valued winning. Once you sat down and met the guys, you knew they were team-oriented guys. That's what this program's built on - team guys who care more about winning than the individual accolades."
Hayward has emerged as the biggest prize. He was the first prospect to visit Butler's campus after Brad Stevens took over as the Bulldogs' coach before the 2007-08 season. By that point, Hayward already had undergone his growth spurt.
Although Hayward remained a secret in national recruiting circles, Stevens immediately zeroed in on him. Hayward selected Butler even after receiving an offer from Purdue, the school each of his parents had attended.
"I was blown away with him," Stevens recalled. "What really stuck out to our staff was no matter what he did in high school, it looked like it would translate to the college level."
As a 6-9 forward with perimeter skills, Hayward gives Butler a matchup advantage even against big-time programs that have rosters full of four- and five-star prospects. Hayward had 22 points and nine rebounds while going 2-for-4 from 3-point range Saturday in a 63-56 win over Kansas State. He went 2-for-3 from beyond the arc, scored 17 points and contributed five rebounds last Thursday in a 63-59 victory over Syracuse.
|Butler’s 2008 recruiting class didn’t feature any top-150 prospects, but three of its members are now key performers on the Bulldogs’ Final Four team. Here’s a look the three sophomores in Butler’s starting lineup.|
|F Gordon Hayward||15.2||8.3||1.8|
|The buzz: The Horizon League player of the year also was named the Most Outstanding Player in the West Regional. Hayward, a potential first-round draft pick whenever he chooses to turn pro, ended a late-season slump by shooting a combined 11-of-21 – including 4-for-7 from 3-point range – in wins over Syracuse and Kansas State.|
|G Shelvin Mack||14.1||3.6||3.1|
|The buzz: Mack leads the Bulldogs with 64 3-point baskets and has shot 40 percent from beyond the arc. He captained the U.S. team that won the gold medal at the FIBA Under-19 World Championships last summer. Hayward also was a member of that team.|
|G Ronald Nored||6.1||2.8||3.7|
|The buzz: Nored has emerged as one of the defensive stalwarts of a team that hasn’t allowed any of its NCAA tournament foes to crack the 60-point mark. He guarded Jacob Pullen on Saturday and held the Kansas State star scoreless for the first 22 ½ minutes of the game.|
"Hayward is big-time," Kansas State coach Frank Martin said. "He's a matchup problem for everybody - 6-8 or 6-9 guys that can drive the basketball the way he drives it, can shoot it, it's a problem. If you guard him small, he just takes you inside and scores over the top. If you guard him big, he drives the basketball."
While Hayward was a late bloomer, Nored was a late addition.
Nored originally signed with Western Kentucky, but he was released from his letter of intent after South Carolina hired then-Hilltoppers coach Darrin Horn. Nored switched to Butler and immediately understood the potential of his signing class.
"From the first open gym, immediately we hit it off," Nored said. "There are six of us in our sophomore class, and immediately all six of us were best friends. We're going out together. We're doing everything together. That's kind of our team. We do a lot of things together."
Nored averages 6.0 points, 3.7 assists and 1.8 steals per game, and his willingness to handle every assignment has made him one of the team's most popular players.
His 3-pointer with 3:14 left sparked an 11-0 run that helped Butler rally to defeat Syracuse. Two days later, Nored had to guard Kansas State's Jacob Pullen, who had averaged 25.7 points in his first three NCAA tournament games. Pullen was scoreless for the game's first 22 1/2 minutes and finished with 14 points.
"Ron is about as confident a guy as you'll ever meet, in himself and in his team," junior forward Matt Howard said. "It's not an egotistical thing, but he believes in himself. He's not afraid of anybody. That kid has no fear at all, and it carries over to everybody else."
Mack plays with a similar fearlessness. That much was apparent after he went 1-for-10 from 3-point range against Syracuse. Instead of passing up open looks against K-State, Mack kept on firing and finished with 16 points.
"If I miss 20 shots in a row, I still believe I'm going to knock down the next shot," Mack said.
He has good reason to believe that. Mack is 13-of-28 from 3-point range in this tournament, a figure all the more remarkable in light of his struggles against Syracuse.
|Compare and contrast|
|Here’s a look at the recruiting rankings of the scholarship players on this season’s Final Four teams. This does not include those on scholarship who began their careers as walk-ons, but it does include transfers from other four-year schools:|
|Michigan State (12)||1||9||2||0||0|
|West Virginia (13)||1||1||8||3||0|
Mack grew up as a Kentucky fan, but he said his hometown school – coached by Billy Gillispie at the time – didn't show much interest in him until after he already had committed to Butler.
Mack isn't in John Wall's class and he lacks Eric Bledsoe's upside, but his 3-point shooting sure could have helped Kentucky. Mack was 3-for-6 from 3-point range Saturday against Kansas State. Later that day, Kentucky was 4-for-32 from beyond the arc in its East Regional final loss to West Virginia.
Not that Mack has any regrets or hard feelings. He's having too much fun where he ended up.
"We all believe in each other," Mack said, "and I think the most important thing is we all have confidence."
Mack's comment reflects the upbeat attitude of Butler's entire sophomore class. This type of story about an overachieving class generally is accompanied by quotes indicating how the prospects came in with a chip on their collective shoulders concerning their perceived lack of respect.
So weren't Butler's sophomores griping when they made their college decisions amid relatively little fanfare?
"Not really," Nored said. "We're all thankful for the opportunity to get to come to college for free. I know my mom is just happy as ever. I know their parents are, too. … Just the opportunity to play college basketball in the first place is awesome."
Butler fans are equally thankful.